ALBANY — Eighty years ago today (Monday), on what should have been an enjoyable Saturday in a bustling, southern Georgia town, the day went very wrong at 4 a.m.
The citizens of Albany were awakened as the ominous clouds that loomed above the city spawned a gale that would change the city’s history. The path of the Feb. 10, 1940, hurricane left a trail of destruction that changed the beautiful historic downtown business district forever. Those residents who witnessed the storm said the tornado roared like impending freight trains as it ripped through the city.
While the tornado passed through the area in only a few minutes, it left a wake of destruction and death. Estimates of the death toll were at 18 citizens, though various accounts of the day differ in estimation. At that point in history, Albany was a growing, thriving “metropolis of southwest Georgia.” The damage that Saturday morning was extensive to the downtown business district and to the residential district in south Albany. Estimates of property damage were from $5 million to $10 million.
At the time, officials claimed “a 500 mile an hour wind” struck Albany, but the National Weather Service now estimates it to have been an EF5-strength twister, which would have produced 200-plus mile an hour winds to serve up the horrific destruction. People milled about downtown as rescue services helped the hundreds of injured before transporting them to Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital or facilities in neighboring towns. The community banded together in the hours, days and months following the tornado to clean up the debris and repair damaged residential and business buildings from Highland Avenue to Oglethorpe Boulevard.
The Albany Herald was assisted by the papers in surrounding towns to put out a special edition eight days after the tornado declaring details of the aftermath. The managing editor at that time, W.M. Pryse, was quoted as saying that the fact that the tornado came at 4 a.m. kept the death and injury toll from being much higher. Power and water were cut off by the storm as the city reeled from the shattered glass storefronts, the caved-in roofs and the complete destruction of many landmarks.
During that storm, pieces of Albany’s history were lost forever. The citizens pulled together to remove the debris, repair and rebuild what could be saved as they moved forward to the city’s next chapter.